The Pittsburgh Penguins had a very unforgettable first half of the 2015-2016 season for all the wrong reasons. From scary injuries like the one Olli Maatta suffered to the retirement Pascal Dupuis was forced into because of blood clots, nothing good seemed to happen until mid-December. Sidney Crosby was slumping, the coach was keeping an 18 year-old on his roster but not playing him. It was all a big mess.
Then the Penguins got a new man behind the bench in Mike Sullivan. Things started to look up. It took a couple weeks, but they scored a few more goals and they got their special teams clicking moderately well. Now as we head into January, here are three keys to continued (and maybe even more) success down the stretch. Accomplishing these three things can lead the Penguins into the post-season and hopefully beyond the first round.
1. Throw everything at the net
In the early part of the season the Penguins couldn’t buy a goal. When they made the coaching change they STILL couldn’t buy a goal. And now? Well, David Perron could probably walk up to the net with no one in it and the Force would somehow find a way to strip him of the puck. You have to keep going.
Coach Mike Sullivan wants his guys throwing everything at the net. For a team with this kind of firepower, it’s the only way to do it. Keep shooting and at some point they’ll go in. Don’t believe me? Just ask Sidney Crosby. Look, at some point guys like Perron and Kessel will get the monkey off their backs, but they physically can’t if they don’t shoot. So stop complaining about how long it takes Perron to shoot. Let him shoot and, eventually, they’ll go in.
2. Be Patient with Sergei Plotnikov
Some people are let down with the play of rookie Russian winger Sergei Plotnikov. They don’t understand why he isn’t scoring goals like Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks. Some people even want to go back in time and get Panarin instead. Problem is, we can’t go back in time and even if we could Panarin was almost always going to sign with the Hawks so there’s no use.
But the real issue here is thinking Sergei Plotnikov is some goal scorer. Sure, Plotnikov would be helping his case a lot more if he could find the back of the net, but he’s never been a goal scorer. The big guy who plays a hard game has only topped 15 goals once in his entire career and it was in juniors. Goal scorer? Not so much. Rutherford said he was acquired to bolster depth. He’s done that. It also took him almost two months just to adjust to the ice here. Let him work at his own pace. It’s coming.
3. Be Strong In The Metro
Last year, the Penguins were abysmal in their division. This year, they’re off to a 3-4-1 start against divisional foes. They’ve beaten Washington, Columbus and the Islanders. In these eight divisional games, half were played under the new coach. In these four games, the Penguins are 2-2 with a goal differential of +4. Overall they’re at an even 0 in goal differential in-division so far.
The key down the stretch will be beating teams like Columbus, Philadelphia and New Jersey. These are all teams the Penguins are known to be better than, but have had issues beating in the past. It will be interesting to see how the new coach changes the way the players gear up for these games. Of course, the team has yet to play a game against the Flyers since 2013 that doesn’t make most fans want to rip their hair out, so any movement in the right direction will be heralded as a great improvement. These are the points that will get the Penguins where they want to be in April and May so these games must be treated as seriously as the Stanley Cup Final.
You cannot win the Stanley Cup in the regular season but you can lose out on the chance to even play for it. That’s what the Penguins need to keep from happening. And to do that they need to look at those three things for a way to get on the right side of the cut off line.